A Favorite and a Longshot in the Florida and Arkansas Derbys

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The first day of April brings two prominent prep races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby: the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park and the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park.

Both races have drawn large fields. Let's check out the key contenders and plan some picks:

Arkansas Derby (G1)

The Arkansas Derby has drawn a strong field. Three Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race winners have entered the 1 1/8-mile contest: Risen Star S. (G2) hero #6 Angel of Empire (9-2), Holy Bull S. (G3) winner #7 Rocket Can (4-1), and Sham S. (G3) champ #8 Reincarnate (5-2). Another entrant, #10 Red Route One (3-1), has cracked the trifecta in a trio of Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers.

Among those four, I prefer the chances of Reincarnate. He was gritty as could be in the Sham, leading virtually all the way to beat next-out Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) winner Newgate by a neck with American Pharoah S. (G1) runner-up and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) third-place finisher National Treasure rounding out the trifecta.

You can argue Reincarnate should have won the Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn last month, but the normally speedy colt received a nightmare trip. After breaking just a step slowly, Reincarnate got shut off between rivals and shuffled back to ninth place, leaving him nearly a dozen lengths off the lead over an unfamiliar sloppy track. Reincarnate could have thrown in the towel right then, but he was actually rallying nicely between rivals until he got shut off again in the homestretch. Forced to steady and wait for room, Reincarnate somehow launched another rally once he got in the clear, closing three lengths in the final furlong to finish third by 2 1/2 lengths.

On Saturday, I hope to see Reincarnate break cleanly, secure a forward position, and battle for victory down the homestretch. But is he my top choice? Actually, no. I'm getting creative with the up-and-comer #4 Two Eagles River (10-1) at four times the price.

Two Eagles River showed promise in his first four starts, beating or running well against Road to the Kentucky Derby participants like Smarty Jones S. winner Victory Formation, Jerome S. hero Lugan Knight, and Champagne S. (G1) runner-up Verifying.

But Two Eagles River elevated his game to a new level in a $100,000 allowance optional claimer racing one mile at Oaklawn last month. After dashing to the lead through respectable fractions of :23.36, :47.94, and 1:12.68, Two Eagles River accelerated strongly (running his final two furlongs in :12.26 and :12.16) to draw off and beat Disarm by four lengths. Disarm, it should be noted, came back to finish second in the Louisiana Derby (G2).

This victory may have marked a turning point for Two Eagles River. It was his first time setting the pace, and the finishing power he displayed was impressive. The son of Preakness S. (G1) winner Cloud Computing has turned in a few sharp workouts since then (including a bullet five furlongs in :59 at Oaklawn) and may be capable of stepping forward again in the Arkansas Derby. Taking all these factors together, Two Eagles River is an enticing win choice, especially if his 10-1 morning line odds hold up.

Florida Derby (G1)

The big storyline heading into the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby is the fact reigning champion two-year-old male #11 Forte (4-5) has drawn an unfavorable outside post with a short run to the first turn.

But to be honest, the wide post doesn't bother me. Forte is by far the most accomplished horse in the field, boasting consecutive victories in the Hopeful S. (G1), Breeders' Futurity (G1), Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), and Fountain of Youth S. (G2). He's repeatedly shown the ability to unleash and sustain sharp bursts of acceleration, and his turn-of-foot in the Fountain of Youth was particularly impressive, carrying him to a 4 1/2-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile contest.

Plus, elite horses are capable of winning the Florida Derby from outside posts. Barbaro prevailed from post 10 in 2006, and Big Brown won from post 12 in 2008. Both went on to claim victory in the Kentucky Derby.

Forte has already proven he's an elite racehorse, and he isn't facing the toughest field on paper in the Florida Derby. Furthermore, his most accomplished rival—Remsen (G2) winner #12 Dubyuhnell (6-1)—has drawn an even wider post.

In a large field containing many longshots, I would rather see Forte race cleanly on the outside than risk getting buried in traffic along the inside. I'm optimistic he'll shrug off any ground loss on Saturday and give trainer Todd Pletcher a record-extending seventh victory in the Florida Derby.

For second place, I'll support #4 Mage (10-1), who wired his debut sprinting seven furlongs at Gulfstream before finishing fourth with a trouble start and a wide trip in the Fountain of Youth. Just like with Reincarnate, I hope to see Mage get off to a better start and grab a forward position in the Florida Derby, setting the stage for a rebound.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Arkansas Derby and Florida Derby?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.

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